Gaza Sky Geeks: Defying the odds under occupation
How can international business be conducted under a political blockade? How can technological innovations be developed with no access to stable electricity? And how can people pursue their goals when violence and war are constants in their day-to-day lives? The entrepreneurs of Gaza’s first tech hub are making the seemingly impossible come true. Read More
How can international business be conducted under a political blockade? How can technological innovations be developed with no access to stable electricity? And how can people pursue their goals when violence and war are constants in their day-to-day lives? The entrepreneurs of Gaza’s first tech hub are making the seemingly impossible come true.
“Gaza has great talent: The population is young and there are many university graduates every year,” reports Said Hassan, who works at Gaza’s first tech hub called Gaza Sky Geeks. “But unemployment is a huge problem. Many highly educated young people face long periods without a job.” This is especially true in IT and programming: “Universities teach IT engineering, but there are no jobs for graduates,” explains Mariam Abultewi, a young developer and entrepreneur.
Youth unemployment was the problem humanitarian organisation Mercy Corps wanted to tackle when it organised the first Start-up Weekends in Gaza in 2011 with support from Google.org. At these events, aspiring entrepreneurs meet with successful tech founders and venture capitalists from other parts of the world. In 2013, when investors started to express interest in Gazan startup teams, Gaza Sky Geeks was born. In addition to entrepreneurship events, the tech hub offers a co-working space and an accelerator programme for selected ventures. It still organises the popular Start-up Weekends: the most recent one in June 2014 received more than 650 applications.
But Gaza is not an easy place to do business: “Gaza is one of the most difficult markets in the world. It is a closed economy with very limited connections to the outside world,” explains Mariam. Many products from abroad aren’t delivered to the occupied territories, and international communication is difficult. Most businesses are therefore small local ventures targeting the domestic market, explains Said. Furthermore, since it is almost impossible to travel abroad, most people in Gaza have little experience with international markets: “Inventions from Gaza often don’t match the outside world”, Said notes. Most Gazans have never travelled more than 20 miles from home.
Life in the Gaza strip
The small territory known as the Gaza Strip, an exclave region in the Palestinian territories about 40 km long and 12 km wide, has been subject to military occupation by Israel since 1967. Although Israel withdrew its troops in 2005, Gaza is still considered “occupied” by the United Nations: Israel continues to control Gaza’s air and maritime space and six of Gaza’s seven land crossings, and it has reserved the right to militarily re-enter Gaza at will. Gaza is thus dependent on Israel for trade, water, sewage, electricity, currency, communication networks, and issuing IDs and permits to enter and leave the territor
When the Islamist party Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory, which severely restricted the movement of goods and people in and out. Critics point out that this not only prevents military supplies from entering Gaza: Basic construction materials, medical supplies, and food are severely limited too. Furthermore, freedom of movement was reduced significantly, despite the fact that the territory is already completely overcrowded with almost 2 million inhabitants.
Israeli restrictions on access to agricultural land and fishing add to the challenges. The Israeli military maintains a no-go buffer zone of 1.5 km on the Gazan side of the border, an area of very arable land, which has led to a dreadful loss in production, and limits the fishing zone on the coastline. Food insecurity and poverty have thus become huge problems. 21% percent of Gaza’s inhabitants live on less than $500 a month, and the general unemployment rate amounts to more than 40% (more than 50% among young people).
Source: Wikipedia & www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-20415675
One of the aims of Gaza Sky Geeks is therefore to connect entrepreneurs with international partners. But that’s not always an easy task: “For the last startup weekend, the hub managed to bring 8 investors to Gaza,” tells Said. “But some others were only allowed to enter the West Bank, not the Gaza strip.” It is therefore very helpful that GSG is run by Mercy Corps and that its Director Iliana Montauk is from the US and can enter and leave the occupied territories with ease. The hub has succeeded in getting permission for its members to travel abroad and visit a hub in Jordan: “For the first time in their lives, the entrepreneurs experienced what life is like when electricity runs 24 hours a day and mobile phones receive 3G signals”, Said recalls. One entrepreneur could even attend a startup event in Egypt.
Internet infrastructure in Gaza is strong, but power supply is a huge challenge for Gaza entrepreneurs: Only 6 hours of electricity severely limits options for inventing and developing new technologies. The Gaza Sky Geeks community workspace therefore provides a high-speed internet connection and a generator that produces electricity from 6 am to 8 pm.
Since 2013, the Start-up Weekend participants with the best rated ideas can win a meeting with potential investors. The investors then choose which ventures they want to invest in. They receive about 20,000 USD in funding as well as individual, daily coaching in international business skills, and the use of a co-working space at the hub, which provides electricity and internet access. Said and Mariam are two of the entrepreneurs who made it into the current accelerator programme and now have the funding to dedicate themselves to developing their ventures full time.
Said Hassan: Tevy, the Social TV Experience
“For us, Gaza Sky Geeks means hope and a connection to the world”, claims Said. The 30-year-old left his country after graduating from university five years ago to accept a job at Souq.com, one of the largest e-commerce platforms in the Arab world. When he returned to Gaza for a family visit 3 years later, he intended to return to his job afterwards. But then he heard about Gaza Sky Geeks: “Discovering Gaza Sky Geeks was like a positive shock for me: there was suddenly something going on in Gaza!” he remembers. “When I graduated, we didn’t have such opportunities. Some of my friends have opened local shops or mini markets; they have forgotten everything they learned at university.”
Apparently, Gaza Sky Geeks was also happy to meet Said: He was invited to join one of the boot camps as a mentor and was later contracted as marketing expert and acceleration manager for the hub.
By now, Said has also already developed his own venture. He was accepted into the accelerator programme with Tevy, an app for a social TV experience. The app offers a second screen for popular TV shows on which users can chat with their friends and other users, as it connects people with the same taste in TV. “There are things you wouldn’t dare say on Facebook, because people might consider it ridiculous”, Said explains. “But on Tevy you know you are only chatting with those friends who watch the same show.”
“Gaza is our test market, but not our target market,” he continues. Once it is launched, Tevy will mainly target users from Egypt and the Gulf area. But its founders have no doubt that the future potential of their innovation is much bigger: “Afterwards we want to expand to South Asia and Europe.”
Mariam Abultewi: Wasselni, the car sharing app for the Middle East
“Three years ago I remember standing on the sidewalk and desperately waiting for a shared taxi that was heading in the right direction”, Mariam recalls. But none was in sight. Annoyed by this situation, she decided to found Wasselni, a car pooling platform similar to Uber and Lyft, but that targets the Middle East. Taxi drivers and private drivers can offer their cars on this mobile app. “Many people in Gaza have cars, but they don’t use them very often because fuel is very expensive,” Mariam explains. Through Wasselni, they can look for other passengers to share the costs. A test version of Wasselni has recently be launched for Gaza only.
Mariam is a graduate from the IT College at the University of Gaza. While many Palestinian women go to university, it is not very common for them to become a programmer, she reports. But Mariam says she loves science and technology, and she always dreamt of working in this branch: “Technology opens so many new opportunities to us. We can do anything; we can make and create things with only a laptop and power. It’s a whole new way of life.”